THE BLOG

Don't Feed the Beast

02/10/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Applying Human Rights Standards to Federal Police Grants

The preventable deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of police have drawn attention to the frequently excessive use of force by police, all too often fatal, and the lack of justice for such violence.

By one count, U.S. police killed more than 655 people in the first eight months of 2014 alone. It is not known how many of these were avoidable or criminal, since the federal government does not require reporting of officer-involved shootings - a problem in itself. But protests and public opinion reflect a widespread conclusion that justice has not been done.

This has coincided with growing federal assistance to police departments across the country, much of it equipment brought back from full-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon equipment valued at over $5 billion, including 78,000 "controlled" military items, has gone to 8,000 police departments. The Department of Homeland Security has given cash grants to local departments of more than $41 billion since 2002 for "counter-terrorism" equipment.

The Albuquerque Police Department has received $1.2 million in Pentagon gear since 2009, including sniper-scopes and a mine resistant vehicle. Yet Albuquerque police shot and killed 32 people during the same period, according to municipal records. The Justice Department found last April that the APD "engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force."

The White House review of federal aid to local police concluded in December only with a request for funds for training and body cameras, kicking harder decisions down the road.

Some Pentagon equipment is not appropriate for use by any local law enforcement agency, even those without unresolved incidents of abuse. A bipartisan bill introduced in September would prohibit transfers to local law enforcement of armed drones, grenades, armored vehicles, .50 caliber weapons and other materiel not suitable for policing. But more strategies are needed.

There is already a federal law governing U.S. foreign assistance that offers a useful standard for grants to police within the United States. The Leahy Law prohibits all aid to a foreign police or military unit if there is credible information that members of the unit have committed a gross human rights abuse and haven't been brought to justice. The Leahy Law is meant to incentivize effective justice in cases of serious human rights violations. Yet there is no such law governing federal assistance to local police within the U.S. Departments with chronic issues of abuse can still receive military hardware and other assistance.

By legislation or executive order, the federal government has much leverage to advance justice for police abuses: it can prohibit Pentagon equipment grants, Homeland Security counter-terrorism funds, and other assistance to police departments that demonstrate a pattern of abuses, or in which there are unresolved federal complaints of civil rights violations.

The experience of communities and data compiled by activists indicate widespread racism by police forces. That pattern needs to be addressed on many levels. But any police homicide credibly alleged to be unjustified, in which the officers responsible have not been held accountable, should trigger a suspension of federal assistance to the department implicated and an investigation. Just as the Leahy Law denies assistance to foreign police units credibly reported to have committed even one serious violation, such as torture or extrajudicial killing, the same standard should apply to domestic police departments - such as the Ferguson police department, which had received Pentagon equipment.

Current requirements to use military hardware within a year of receiving it or forfeit it back to the federal government also constitute a perverse incentive to escalate the use of force, even when circumstances may never merit the equipment's deployment. These requirements should be scrapped. Since the federal government retains title to most items granted to local police departments, it should recall that equipment when local forces have outstanding cases of extrajudicial killings.

Moreover, to establish an authoritative national registry of police-involved shootings, police departments should be required to annually submit documentation of such incidents.

These requirements are not foreign. In response to recent scrutiny, the Pentagon in November began to screen police department grantees to exclude those with open federal investigations. Law enforcement agencies are likely to push back against such proposals. But their resistance must be met with determination and clarity that agencies that commit gross abuses must not be rewarded until justice is done.

John Lindsay-Poland is a researcher with the Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence.